Today we went to the Taj Mahal. We first stopped to get some breakfast at a little restaurant/hotel/timeshare place about halfway to Agra from New Delhi. There, we came upon an elephant (and on our way back when we stopped again, a camel).
We had been making good time on our way to Agra, clipping along nicely around one hundred kilometers per hour (that’s a little bit over sixty miles per hour, in case you were wondering). That is, until we reached Agra. At that point, we hit deadlock India traffic. Mostly, it was due to a detour caused by construction on the main road; unfortunately, the detour took us to another road with more construction occuring. We did (eventually) make it to the Taj Mahal, despite the rather alarming traffic. If you cared to know, we probably spent around seven or eight hours total in the car today.
The Taj Mahal itself is…stunning. Made of white marble, it is adorned with intricate carvings and inlays of semi-precious stones, such as mother-of-pearl, lapis lazuli, and firestone. It is completely symmetrical (each side looks exactly the same as the others), with the one exception of the builder, Shah Jahan’s, (fake) sarcophogus (the actual sarcophogi are underground, but they built replicas to put above ground for visual purposes). I shall explain all that in a moment. The symmetry goes so far that there are not one, but two mosques (only one is actually used as a mosque, though) built adjacent to the Taj Mahal–one on each side.
Shah Jahan, was a Mughal ruler somewhere about five hundred years ago (I think). He built the Taj Mahal as a burial place for his beloved wife of thirteen years. She died giving birth to their eleventh child. You do the math. His intention was to build an identical Taj Mahal made of black marble across the river from her burial place for his own entombment. That way, he and his wife would always be close by each other. One problem. The great expenditure of funds, resources, and labor were rather…extravagant, to say the least. Using only the finest materials and artisans is not cheap, not to mention the alleged twenty thousand workers who died during construction of the first Taj Mahal. While these costs may have been worth it to Shah Jahan, they weren’t to his son, who promptly locked his father up in the nearby Agra Red Fort. Like Julius Caesar, Shah Jahan was perhaps too ambitious for his own good. Ergo, the black Taj Mahal was never completed; only its foundation was laid by the time Shah Jahan died. Having no suitable burial site prepared for himself, Shah Jahan was therefore buried next to his wife in the white Taj Mahal, thus explaining the one facet of symmetrical imperfection in the structure (she was buried in the center, he was interred next to her).
Interestingly enough, this national monument of India gained protection from the government only about twenty years ago. According to the Shivelys, one of the tour guides they had on another trip reminisced about how, as a boy of about ten years old, he and his friends played cricket on the marble grounds of the Taj Mahal itself. They would also dig out the semi-precious stones from the walls to take home as trinkets. Strange how things work sometimes; now they won’t even let you carry in a piece of paper that says “Happy Birthday” on it (a huge security risk, you know).
Afterwards, we stopped at a shop that inlays marble, such as is done in the Taj Mahal. It is a complicated and tedious process–a single flower less than one centimeter in diameter might have three individual pieces of semi-precious stone in each petal, and four pieces in the center. The man who seemed to be the manager there explained the process; there were artisans onsite for tourists to observe. Items all the way from whole tables made out of marble to marble elephants to coasters and picture frames, of course made of marble were sold at this shop.
Oh, and for anyone who was wondering about the mustard bird from yesterday’s post, there were whole flocks at the Taj Mahal…